Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Importance Of Coaching

While the Canadian junior players were downing the Americans in Ufa, Russia, another Canadian team found its way to the final in their respective tournament. The Canadian Spengler Cup entry downed Swiss-based HC Fribourg by a 5-1 score to capture one of the berths in the final. They'll meet the Joe Thornton-led HC Davos squad on the other side as the home team Davos downed HC Vitkovice Steel by a 5-4 score yesterday to advance. It took them a couple of games, but Canada has gelled and looked impressive in their last couple of games as they roll into the final.

Let's take nothing away from head coach Doug Shedden and assistant coach Chris McSorley. They have done a magnificent job in getting the NHL players to buy into their system, and they have lines that are clicking very well. In some cases, teammates are making the difference, but there are guys who haven't played with each other in their careers at this point who look like they've spent the last five years on the same line.

Shedden was in an unenviable position at the start of this tournament. If this NHL player-laden squad had come into the Spengler Cup and lost, he would have been crucified for not getting the players to perform. After all, he has nearly a dozen players who spent time in the NHL last season, and anything less than the championship would be considered a failure.

On the other hand, Shedden's accomplishments as a coach will be downplayed by a vast number of fans due to the fact that he was lucky enough to be able to pull together a team like this. He was expected to win with this talent-laden squad, and it's probably pretty easy to knock off a few European club teams with half of an NHL All-Star team. All Shedden had to do was tap a few guys on the shoulders and there would be pucks filling the net.

If you caught the first game against Adler Mannheim, that was simply not the case. The Canadians struggled to find any sort of chemistry as they put a measly one goal on the board against Germany's top team this year. Mannheim showed that they could skate with the Canadians, but they were clearly not as talented as the Canadians. But the result spoke volumes about how hard Mannheim outworked Canada as they captured a 2-1 victory. Suddenly, Canada was not invincible.

Canada, finding themselves in a position where the game against Davos was nearly a must-win game, came out with some new lines against the host squad, and hammered Davos by a 5-0 score. Make no mistake that the new line combinations worked well as they capitalized on a number of chances, but the Canadian team looked vastly superior to their Swiss counterparts in this game.

"None of these guys were happy about losing last night and they certainly showed it in their play tonight," Doug Shedden told The Canadian Press. "We put a system in place in the neutral zone that wouldn't let Davos play their style of hockey."

The fact that they changed up their system and got immediate buy-in from these players shows that the players trust their coaches. With the success of that system, there should be no doubt that Shedden is playing a major role in writing the story of this team.

After Davos knocked Mannheim off, Canada would advance to the semi-finals with the bye after winning the pool. It was here that they met HC Fribourg, and Canada outclassed the other Swiss squad by a large margin as well. There was little doubt about the outcome when watching the game as Canada seemingly spent a vast majority of the game with the puck on their sticks.

While the talent of the team played a large part in keeping the puck stuck to Canadian sticks, it still takes a competent bench boss to roll players out whose styles mesh with one another. Having star NHL players dropping to block shots and taking hits to make plays in a tournament where they could have just played like it was an All-Star Game is evidence that this team has pride and listens to their coach.

"When you see guys like Jason Spezza blocking shots and backchecking like he was (on Thursday), that's great to see," he said. "This is a team that is starting to buy in to a system, and everyone is doing their part."

Everyone needs to realize that no matter how good a team is, they still need a general who assembles them on the battlefield. Scotty Bowman is regarded as the best bench coach of all-time due to his success over the years, and he's coached some excellent teams. He hasn't always been successful, but, as he aged and became more experienced, winning was more of an expectation than a hope.

While Shedden is not quite at the level of a Toe Blake or Scotty Bowman, he has rolled four lines and eight defencemen with success and made the right calls with respect to his goaltenders. His choices have led Canada to an expected berth in the final, but it didn't look that way after the loss to Adler Mannheim. A switch of the system and some juggling of players on lines, however, have resulted in much greater success.

A coach can get his team to win games. A good coach can make changes to his lineup and/or system and see some wins result from it. But a great coach gets his players to buy into his changes seamlessly to result in greater success. Shedden and McSorley have done this, and got the buy-in they needed to succeed at a high level.

I'm guessing that Shedden would have had great results regardless of the amount of NHL talent he has assembled on his bench because he knows how to coach.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

No comments: